A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Ciabattari’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.


11:00 A.M. Go out to a café to read a first novel I’m reviewing. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is about a family of alligator wrestlers. Talk about Southern Gothic. I’m finding the language fresh and original. Describing a deserted house in the swamp: “A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.”

6:30 P.M. The panelists for tonight’s National Book Critics Circle discussion I’m moderating, “Book Reviews, Revamped,” are all sitting in the office of Noreen Tomassi, the executive director of the Center for Fiction. I love this place. Floors of books, collections dating back to the nineteenth century.

Once the audience has gathered, we head downstairs to the second floor, where we have a discussion of the ways in which four publications are headed into the new decade.

Jennifer MacDonald, who is involved with revamping The New York Times Book Review, breaks news: in February Paper Cuts is merging into the ArtsBeat blog, and they have hired a new children’s book editor, Pamela Paul.

Robert Messenger, who launched the Wall Street Journal’s stand-alone print book section this fall, says he’s not reinventing a book-review section, he’s preserving an old form, and Rupert Murdoch wants him to edit for the reader, not for advertisers.

Craig Teicher talks about Publishers Weekly’s revival under a new owner, the poetry coverage, and the news blog he’s started.

Barbara Hoffert talks about writing the weekly prepub alert for Library Journal, and mentions the new opportunities for small presses and work in translation to be reviewed.


10:00 A.M. I post a series of appreciations of writer Wilfrid Sheed, critic’s critic and former Sag Harbor neighbor, who died on Wednesday morning in the Berkshires. Bill Sheed was fun to read, unless you were the author he was reviewing. Here he is on the dangers of premature literary success: “The first extravagant praise kills writers like frost. Whom the gods would destroy, they first oversell.”

And on reading Hemingway: “It’s like being trapped in an endless exhibit of primitive paintings. Why, one wonders again and again, did so gifted a man chain himself to so narrow a method?”

6:00 P.M. Stacy Schiff talks about her best-selling biography of Cleopatra to a crowd of three hundred in midtown. She describes the complexities of writing about a historic figure whose life has little documentation other than references from Plutarch and Cicero (whose own biases were obvious). At one point she says, “The great age of biography began with the typewriter and ended with e-mail.”


8:30 A.M. I’m on deadline all day, with coffee and lunch breaks and a few minutes to make lists of my favorites for the NBCC short-list voting tomorrow.

7:15 P.M. Greenlight Books is invitingly bright on a winter night; it’s easy to browse, there’s a 15 percent–off section up front. I could stay here for hours. But I’m here to introduce an NBCC-sponsored reading with editors and authors from Akashic Books’s Noir series—Philly, Brooklyn, the Bronx.

By the time we start, the chairs are filled, despite the icy streets. Carlin Romano, NBCC board member, critic-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, longtime literary critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and editor of Philadelphia Noir, orchestrates a conversation and brief readings, all in a well-timed hour. From his introduction: “I thank my contributors for their very limited references to hoagies, cheesesteaks, water ice, soft pretzels, and waitresses who call their customers ‘Hon.’ There’s no glimpse of Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin or the rowers by the Waterworks, and only one passing mention of Rocky. Truth is, we don’t talk much about those things. We just live our lives.”

I head home to the stack of NBCC fiction contenders. I take another glance through the 101-year-old German psychoanalyst Hans Keilson’s Kafkaesque novella Comedy in a Minor Key, published in 1947 and newly translated into English. It’s set in Nazi-occupied Holland and deals with a Dutch couple that harbors a Jewish stranger who dies of pneumonia. They have to decide what to do with his body.

Then it’s on to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I find intelligent, psychologically acute, seriously playful, attuned to cutting-edge technology (one chapter is in PowerPoint). She follows a punk rocker–turned–music producer named Bennie Salazar, his sticky-fingered assistant Sasha, and an assortment of has-beens, wannabes, faded big shots, and hangers-on through various points in time, including the future. Who’s the goon? Time. (She and her reading group spent seven years reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.)


7:00 A.M. Today is the NBCC board meeting where we vote on awards finalists. I’m up early, rereading Hiroshima in the Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. Rizzuto traveled to Hiroshima in June 2001 to interview survivors of the atomic bomb. I’m particularly taken by her visit to the peace museum there. “There are people around me now, crying; they’re turning away from the unbearable, and all I feel is anger. I know what they do not: Hiroshima has been erased.” And later, after 9/11 unlocks memories and the Hiroshima survivors retrieve more emotion and detail, she writes, “The function of memory is not to record history, but to tell stories. It is never fact we want. It is understanding.”

Her book evokes those eerie and wrenching hours and days after the attack on the Twin Towers, the sound of F-16s droning overhead around the clock, video images of the planes and of the smoldering site, playing for weeks afterward. I saw an uniformed fireman covered in soot walking down the aisle at St. John the Divine, tears streaming down his face. He took a seat and bent over, his face in his hands. Several of us walked across the aisle and put comforting hands on his shoulders.

10:15 A.M. Twenty-three of the twenty-four NBCC board members are in town for the January board meeting. The day passes in a blur; we’re engaged in intense awards discussion, debate, and voting.

5:45 P.M. At WNYC’s high-tech Greene Performance Space, the guest announcers, all past winners of or finalists for NBCC awards, gather: Joan Acocella, Jason Epstein, Blake Bailey, Stephen Burt, Carolyn Forche, Annette Gordon-Reed, Honor Moore, and Zadie Smith. The announcement goes off smoothly: thirty-one finalists and two award winners (Dalkey Archive Press has won the Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement, announced by Jason Epstein; Paroul Sehgal has won the Nona Balakian prize for excellence in reviewing, announced by Joan Acocella). The NBCC’s finalists are all public now. The party lasts for several hours, emitting a gentle buzz like the hum of a beehive.

8:00 P.M. Mark and I head to Fanelli’s for cheeseburgers with fellow board member Eric Banks and John Freeman, my predecessor and now editor of Granta.

Eric gives the tout of the night, for Uncle Mo to win the Derby. Spring is not that far away. Later he sends me a link to Uncle Mo’s Saratoga debut, in which he wins by fifteen-plus lengths. He also touts the “Painters and Poets” exhibit at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (“I’m going up there with the original Uncle Mo, Albert Mobilio”).

John says Granta’s upcoming Aliens issue has a lengthy excerpt from the new novel by Aravind Adiga, author of the sardonic first novel, The White Tiger, which takes on India’s caste system. He and Eric, the former editor of Bookforum, talk about the joys of publishing pieces in the ten-thousand-word range.

Mark asks us, When did you first read Tropic of Cancer? John describes listening to an audiotape of Tropic while driving through the woods of puritanical New England. Mark riffs on the days of buying books in brown paper wrappers, from behind the counter. I can’t remember when I first read it. In graduate school? No, earlier. At Stanford? Yes, of course. I read Mark’s copy.

When we get home in the wee hours, Mario Vargas Llosa has the last word:

I remember very clearly how I read Tropic of Cancer for the first time, thirty years ago: very quickly, overexcited, in the course of just one night. A Spanish friend had got hold of a French version of this maudit book about which so many stories were circulating in Lima, and when he saw how anxious I was to read it, he lent it to me for a few hours. It was a strange experience, completely different to what I had imagined, because the book was not scandalous, as was being said, because of its erotic scenes, but rather because of its vulgarity and its cheerful nihilism.

Jane Ciabattari is a fiction writer, book reviewer, and president of the National Book Critics Circle.